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Space Detective

Short fiction by Eugene Lim

Space Detective has her feet on the desk of her basement office. She is profoundly bored. A series of disasters has conspired to confine her to her house for several months.

She had thought she was too old for it but several of her friends have already done it. The thick fog of boredom, which she momentarily and perfunctorily acknowledges as an aspect of entitlement, finally convinces her to go. She activates the cryogen casket. She takes the pill. She puts on the suit and helmet. She double checks the IV lines and lays down in the casket. She hums the passcode and is instantly sent to Videogame.


The training module in Videogame is short but informative. Giants steal every iota of your agency. In return you are gifted a sterile happiness that makes no sense but becomes your only possession. You eat cheese when you want cheese. If you die you will be erased. If you are seen to struggle or complain, you will be tortured with the greatest creativity—that is, unless your complaints provide comedy, in which case you’ll be given a piece of chocolate cake, which represents the illusion of electoral politics. You love madly and will be thusly punished. Each breath you take in Videogame is necessarily stolen from elderly patients gasping for oxygen.

You scroll quickly and hit accept.

A world materializes in front of you. Your feet are on your desk in your basement office. You are beginning to feel a familiar weariness, a recognizable depression—when the phone rings.

You say, “Hello. Space Detective Detective Agency.”

“Hi. Could I speak with Space Detective?”


“Oh good. Boy, do I have a case for you!”


Several hours later I meet the client at a diner. The client looks like my exhausted ex-husband. He says, “We have it on good information that a girl named Mary has been kidnapped. It turns out Mary is yourself, Space Detective—except you when you were thirteen. This is because of time-travel plot. Your job is to find Mary and protect her at all costs and teach her to be happy and safe in an indifferent and treacherous world.”

Space Detective takes a sip of coffee and asks, “Am I still in Videogame?”

The client who looks like my exhausted ex-husband says, “You will never know and, anyway, that’s the whole point of Videogame.”

“Oh yeah,” Space Detective admits.

The client and Space Detective stare at each other for a few minutes. Then the client who looks like my exhausted ex-husband takes out a flask and pours what looks like whiskey into his coffee.

“Could I have some of that?” asks Space Detective.

“Are you sure?” asks the client who looks like Space Detective’s exhausted ex-husband. “It’s got a kick, and besides it’s nine in the morning.”

“I can handle it,” says Space Detective, “and I think this is still Videogame.”

“Such knowledge is impossible and, even if you were to acquire it, it would not help you in any way,” says Space Detective’s ex-husband who looks like the client.

“Just pour the hooch,” says Space Detective. The client, who resembles (she couldn’t put her finger on it) someone from Space Detective’s past, complies.

Space Detective wakes up to a day that promises to be identical to all her others, but then she remembers her mission—that is, she remembers she may or may not be in Videogame.

As she eats her simple breakfast of wheat toast and hummus and sips her Earl Gray heavily fortified with mezcal, while scrolling through news of disaster and self-aggrandizing announcements of culinary and career accomplishments, she briefly indulges in the fantasy of beginning a daily exercise routine. Yoga or qigong, she thinks, indulgently, without conviction. She pours more mezcal into her half-empty cup. She pauses briefly to note a city of seven million, thanks to facial recognition software and a distracted world, fell to autocratic control and lost its freedoms overnight. The two global superpowers were in competition to build the most vile prison-industrial complexes, each streamlined to take maximum advantage of local conditions. Both were innovating technology and policy as fast as greed allowed. It was an explosive competition. Space Detective continues scrolling absentmindedly, the spark of grief and outrage fading and then hardening into a funny callus, which floated in the gelatinous suspension of her soul—a viscous ether that was turning opaque from such clusters.

A notification pings. Drone surveillance cams have identified someone who had an above 80 percent match to Mary’s last known photos. Space Detective gets up and stretches. She makes herself a sandwich of avocado, radish, and tomato on rye for the road.


What would she tell Mary if she ever finds her, thinks Space Detective. There is no way to protect her, no politics or wealth or poverty or diet or location or occupation that might protect her from the unending symphonies of catastrophes, grief, and culpability.

Space Detective wonders, Was this Videogame? Am I still in Videogame?

A thin blade of an idea occurs to her, as it often did in the throes of intellectual pessimism: that these multiplying crises might be the bottom. That we were at a perilous inflection point but perhaps a door was opening the human race might walk through. After all, a growing methodology seemed to be one of choosing and advocating for those most systematically oppressed. People were saying collective liberation demanded equity and rights and agency extended to the “least of these.” Was this an inspiring and necessary fundamental philosophy for the race’s spiritual evolution? Was it condescension disguised as a gesture toward equality? Was this the solution to climate disaster, ableism, racial and financial castes, and forever war? Or was it a naive misunderstanding of the immutable laws of power and its attendant and required abject victims?

Space Detective emitted a bitter laugh and switched on the autopilot so she could take a nap.


As Space Detective approaches the reported coordinates she sees it’s the site of yet another protest march. She knows she’ll never spot Mary in this crowd. Nonetheless she hover-parks and cloaks her car and joins the march.

There are tens of thousands of people so it is trivial to blend in. However Space Detective is one of maybe a third of the crowd who are physically there. These are identifiable by the protective gear. Depending on the brand and type, this clothing is able to do the following: scramble recognition software, actively defend against Space Plague pathogens, provide some limited shielding in anticipation of state violence, and push through communication and news feeds. Usually these wearables look like, for some retro-fashion trend that Space Detective never could fathom, bell-bottom pants or Nehru jackets.

The majority of the protesters, however, aren’t physically there. They are projecting their bare-naught avatars onto the site but declaring themselves loyal to the cause by indicating in their status reports that they had not fractured any of their attention and had reduced their avatar activity to singleton mode. “I am here!” they announce from afar.


Indeed the irony was that many of the projected participants may have been more attentive than the meatspace ones as Space Detective saw many of the latter with picture-in-picture windows and side feeds as they auto-marched. Without much conviction Space Detective scans the crowd for Mary. There are many children, as is true of most protests.

After twenty minutes, Space Detective grows weary of lip syncing to nonsensical chants. She returns to her car and goes home proposing and then discarding options to herself for the right menu of drugs she may take that evening.


In the future, which is where Space Detective abides, marches continue as a kind of important political theater, however, one of the key changes between now and that unbridgeably future then is that everyone understands the audience for these protests aren’t politicians or other state actors. Rather the protests function as an advertisement of possibility to the people. Even as protests increased in size, they never could amount to a significant portion of the population. And poll numbers, which is all that were ever considered as (increasingly negligible) variable, always reflected a more staid and if not more conservative then a more uninterested and uneducated majority. That is, if they looked at all, politicians and capitalists looked at icy, chiseled poll numbers, and not at the fiery, pounding theater of marches. But organizers learned that the only way to move the general sentiment was through the spectacle of many puny wills in overwhelming sum. A military parade is a show of power. A protest march isn’t a show of power as much as it’s an incantation, a whisper, to the sympathetic but not yet engaged. In history, which is where Space Detective also abides, mass protests are not only the desperate penultimate expression of discontent before despair and violence, but also a magic bell to awaken buried, innocent dreams of justice.

Is this Videogame? thinks Space Detective.

Space Detective is in a luxury sedan driving triple the speed limit through an outer borough avenue. Behind her are huge, so-called sports utility vehicles weaponized with armor and turrets of rapid-fire rayguns. Inside these cars are all the Space Detective’s college professors who looked roided up into menacing, muscle-bound versions of themselves. Through loudspeakers they shout at Space Detective things like, “You’re late for the midterm!” and “The paper was due two weeks ago!” and “It’s obvious you didn’t do the reading!” To drown them out, Space Detective turns on the radio.

An announcer says, “You think you’re in Videogame but you’re not.”


“Something that comes to mind,” continues the radio, “is the idea of solitary confinement as torture. Which is becoming self-evident, isn’t it? Consider now being kept in a small room with no human contact for years. Some like Albert Woodfox were in the hot box for decades. There is prison in the imagination and prison in reality, but one isn’t making the mistakes of presumption when extrapolating from a prolonged but relatively minor isolation into the more cruel and enduring one. Consider the corollary first. Social networks are so addictive and inescapable because of our construction as social beings. Think about how primary that psychological engine is, which is driving our social networks, so much so that opting out of what we all agree is a shitty experience seems to require enormous will power. Now reverse that and imagine how it must feel when that primary drive—a drive as fundamental as our drive for food or sex—becomes frustrated. When the artist Jackie Sumell corresponded with prisoner-of-conscience Herman Wallace to envision a home, the first thing Wallace mentioned was a garden. From that insight Sumell started her Solitary Gardens project where gardeners would correspond with prisoners in solitary and receive instructions on what and how to plant in a six-by-nine foot garden, the conventional dimensions of prison cells. The punishment of solitary confinement is not one decided by judges or juries but unelected prison guards with little to no accountab—”


Space Detective shuts off the radio, then thinks better of it. She turns it back on but tries to scan for music. She hates talk radio. Finally she finds some music. It’s Wes Montgomery’s “Four On Six.”

“All right!” Space Detective says aloud.

A text box pops up. Mary’s last known whereabouts may have been identified. Space Detective smiles and pushes the button that converts her car into flying mode, drops a cluster of tear-gas bombs and flash-bangs to distract the roided academics—and flies out into the city night.


Gliding above the skyscraper canyons, enjoying a moment of welcome escapism, Space Detective taps the steering wheel in beat. But mid-track a DJ breaks in to deliver urgent news.

“Nuclear war is erupting!

“The president of the republic has long been known to be insane. In fact he was elected due to the twin planks in his platform: I am a racist and I am insane.

“Confirmed reports say that missiles have been launched and a counter attack is due within minutes.”

The radio goes dead.


Space Detective takes her foot off the accelerator and drifts. Was this Videogame? she wonders. She spins slowly in a downward helix she doesn’t bother correcting.

Space Detective considers unbuckling, opening the hatch, and jumping—but decides it will be better to go with the group. Weird how this is how it ends, she thinks. Who could have predicted? After a moment she changes her mind and decides she’d rather not wait and goes to unbuckle her seat belt to jump. At that moment the radio crackles back on. The DJ says, “Ha ha, just kidding. April Fools!”

“It’s summer,” Space Detective hisses to the air in her car.

The DJ says, “Here’s Eddie Harris with his 1976 hit, ‘That Is Why You’re Overweight.’” Space Detective is ready to murder the DJ but then as the song’s groove infects her, she simply sighs, re-engages her stabilizers, and resumes the flight path to her destination.

The DJ says, “You’re listening to The Apocalypse Always Radio Hour where the hits just keep on coming . . . ”


As she flies, she thinks, “My elderly parents are so isolated. If their home gets struck by a radiation tornado or if they catch Space Plague or if armed racists attack them, there’s nothing I can do from here.” Then she changes the radio to classical.


When Space Detective arrives at the designated coordinates all she finds is an empty parking lot next to a suburban shopping mall that has fallen into ruins. Space Detective paces through the empty cracked places. She reads words that made sense only to people of the past. Noble. Crew. Brooks. Le Pain. She grows bored after a few minutes, breaks a window for fun, considers killing herself again, and then flies home, imperfectly satisfied with the day’s progress.